Marvelously Macabre

October 18, 2018 § Leave a comment

When my kids were younger, there was a nearby house which went all out in the weeks leading up to Halloween. I have never seen anything like it; rumor has it the entire second floor was dedicated to storing the decorations during the other eleven months of the year. There was no discernible theme. It was simply a collection of macabre paraphernalia thrown together on a front lawn: dark hooded figures wielding axes; skeletons with gaping eye sockets; dismembered body parts robotically twitching. For young children, I thought it would have been repulsive at best, terrorizing at worst.

Instead, my children adored it. “If we go to the grocery store, we can drive by the Halloween House,” I’d say, and you’ve never seen kids fly out the door faster. “Can we take our pictures next to the scary guys?” they would shout. And we did.

As it turns out, my kids were not the only ones who came to anticipate the Halloween House as soon as they detected a chill in the air. When the owners finally sold the house and moved away, people came from far and wide to lay claim for a few dollars to a decoration or two. (Sadly, we arrived too late—a grievance which my father-in-law is fond of remedying by gifting us macabre decorations of our own, most recently a set of unassuming book spines, out of which shoots a black and shriveled up hand, accompanied by loud symphonic banging, when I walk by. My kids find this terribly amusing.)

What I have come to understand is that children, like adults, embody a fascinating paradox when it comes to the macabre. Death, which most of us avoid thinking about at all costs, suddenly inspires fascination and enjoyment when represented artistically. In a recent opinion piece for The Guardian, which sings the praises of authors like Roald Dahl under the title, “A touch of the macabre in children’s books is nothing to be scared of,” Eleanor Margolis argues that so long as it is presented with humor, macabre imagery becomes a safe and healthy way for our children to contemplate some of the darker sides of life—elements which might otherwise terrify them:

…the vital ingredient in introducing children to the macabre is humour. This is where old morality tales fall short. The Brothers Grimm, for example, produced a collection of fairytales that manage to be gruesome, preachy, antisemitic and (can you imagine?) not even particularly funny. This need for balance is where Roald Dahl – the king of “too dark for kids” – hits the absolute sweet spot. Sure, after I read The Witches, for a short time I suspected most of my friends’ mums were witches, and I was duly petrified of them. But the book was also packed with silliness. It was, along with Matilda and The Twits, easily the most gross, unsettling and deeply fun book I’d ever read. Because those concepts can coexist, and decent writing sets them off against each other like peanut butter and jam. There’s often a thin line between scary and funny, and children (above all people) know this to be true.

Roald Dahl may be one stellar literary choice for indulging our morbid fascination with a side of good cheer (I concur that sharing The Witches with my kids never gets old), but there are others, including what may be the best purchase you’ll ever make for under five dollars. Alvin Schwartz’s In a Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories (Ages 4-8) is a slim “I can Read” paperback, originally printed in 1984, featuring seven short stories and poems inspired by traditional folktales, each delivered with easy, repetitive vocabulary and lots of white space.

As a child learning to read in the 1980s, I was obsessed with this book (perhaps it’s no coincidence that another book I loved—in fact, the first one I remember reading all by myself—was The Berenstain Bears and the Spooky Old Tree, similarly ripe with macabre imagery). Imagine my delight when both my kids went gaga over Schwartz’s spooky stories. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that my daughter learned to read so that she could read this book to anyone who would listen. There was actually a time when she would lure unsuspecting friends on playdates to her room so she could read In a Dark, Dark Room to them. (I would stand outside her closed door, grinning at the gasps and giggles which emanated.)

I’m serious. I don’t think there is another book that has received more attention from my children over the past six years.

All signs would point to my kids not being alone. An updated version of In a Dark, Dark Room is set to be released next week, with new illustrations by Victor Rivas (though I have a hunch I will always prefer Dirk Zimmer’s original art, which is what’s photographed here). Part of the book’s enduring appeal is that the storytelling is pitch perfect. In just a few pages, Schwartz uses repetition to build suspense, culminating in a deliciously spine-chilling and uproariously funny reveal.

But it’s more than simply great storytelling. The presence of the macabre here—characters with grotesque facial features; hairy corpses which come alive; ghosts who boo in the night—gives young children the bewitching feeling that they’re getting away with something. Should I even be reading this? Aren’t these the things my parents are always dismissing as not real, as fit only for nightmares? This is bonkers. This. is. awesome.

Nowhere is this delicious thrill more evident than in the book’s third story, “The Green Ribbon.” If you mention In a Dark, Dark Room to someone who read it as a child, chances are they’ll respond with something like, “Is THAT the book with the story about the girl who wears the ribbon around her neck?” Yes. Yes, it is.

Once there was a girl named Jenny.
She was like all the other girls,
except for one thing.
She always wore a green ribbon
around her neck.

Jenny’s friend, Alfred (like us readers), is determined to get to the bottom of this green ribbon. “Why do you wear that ribbon all the time?” Alfred asks her over and over, first as her childhood pal and later as her husband. “I will tell you when the right time comes,” Jenny replies. Finally, as she lies in old age on her death bed, Jenny tells Alfred that he can untie the ribbon and learn her secret. He unties the ribbon.

…and Jenny’s head fell off.

I mean, come on. Find me five better words in children’s literature! Total jaw dropper. Unforgettable. Herein lies all the motivation we need to read: to have the rug yanked out from underneath our feet and to fall back onto the safe, downy softness of our bed in amazement.

I’m not sure anything can live up to the celebrity of In a Dark, Dark Room in our house, but my kids and I found a kindred spirit in the newly-published The Frightful Ride of Michael McMichael (Ages 4-8), a picture book by master storyteller Bonny Becker (Bear and Mouse, need I say more?) and illustrated with an obvious fondness for the macabre by Mark Fearing.

The Frightful Ride of Michael McMichael may be less straightforward than In the Dark, Dark Room, but the delivery is once again perfect: the rhyming text builds with suspense, drawing us into its nebulous world, then turning on us with a reveal we didn’t see coming. Young Michael McMichael looks the picture of innocence as he waits for the bus to take him to his grandmother’s house, his hand grasping a picnic basket lined with red and white checks. He may as well be Little Red Riding Hood. In contrast, the arriving bus, numbered ominous Thirteen, raises the hair on our necks. My kids were quick to point out the multitude of omens, from the fang-like mirrors to the misshapen tires.

The bus was full, barely room inside.
Perhaps he should wait for a different ride?
But he was late. And, well, besides,
It was Gran’s dear pet he transported.

While the passengers seem normal enough, we feel for little Michael, who watches as one by one each person gets off the bus, leaving him with a driver “whose face was thin as bone/ and more and more distorted.” When Michael begins to look around the empty bus, he sees further evidence of a fate quickly approaching—hungry mouths on the seats and hissing snakes hanging from the bars—although we can’t tell what’s real and what’s his imagination. Only when the driver announces his intention of collecting “meat or bone” for payment, do we realize the child is trapped (“Our coffers will not be shorted!”). My son flipped back to the page where the earlier passengers were disembarking: had I noticed they were a bit shimmery around the edges, a bit ghost-like?

Just as the bus accelerates past a graveyard and straight toward a dark forest, as the driver’s facial features become even more grotesque and his advances even more predatory, the narrative takes a (much-welcomed) lighter turn. We begin to realize that quick-thinking Michael is making an escape plan. Playing into the driver’s carnivorous appetite, he offers to sacrifice his Gram’s pet to pay his fare. (Or does he? I won’t dare spoil the ending like I did the green ribbon; suffice it to say that Michael (and his Gram) are feistier than we thought them to be.)

A scary story doesn’t find a receptive audience—doesn’t work—unless our children are allowed a chance to recover some agency while reading it (the equivalent to pointing out that the animatronic hand on the front lawn has inadvertently turned over and stalled). When our children see that, in the story they’re reading, it’s a child’s own cleverness, resourcefulness, or thievery which triumphs over death, they feel likewise empowered to look down death’s nose and cackle right back.

This year, my children are eight and eleven, precisely the ages I’ve been waiting for to break out one of my favorite macabre chapter books. Here is another instance where the horrifying and the hilarious pair perfectly. Adam Gidwitz’s A Tale Dark and Grimm (Ages 8-12), the first in his best-selling trilogy (recently redesigned with tantalizing covers by Caldecott Medalist Dan Santat), hacks traditional Grimm fairy tales into grisly, bloody, gruesome bits, then dishes them out with such irreverence and wit, our children would be left speechless if they weren’t laughing so hard.

We began last night; and while reading aloud by candlelight turns out to be harder than I thought (damn aging eyes), I didn’t learn nothing by reading In a Dark, Dark Room all those years ago. Ambiance counts. Especially when I’m asking my children to use their own imaginations to conjure up the macabre images Gidwitz so alluringly and unapologetically describes.

With the covers half over their faces, they hung on my every word. Of course, that’s precisely what Gidwitz intends when he writes things like this:

Before I go on, a word of warning: Grimm’s stories—the ones that weren’t changed for little kids—are violent and bloody. And what you’re going to hear now, the one true tale in the Tales of Grimm, is as violent and bloody as you can imagine.

Really.

So if such things bother you, we should probably stop right now.

You see, the land of Grimm can be a harrowing place. But it is worth exploring. For, in life, it is in the darkest zones one finds the brightest beauty and the most luminous wisdom.

And, of course, the most blood.

The darkness finds us all eventually. While we can, let’s have fun occasionally seeking it out. At least, for one marvelously macabre holiday.

 

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Review copy of The Frightful Ride of Michael McMichael from Candlewick. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

Summertime Magic

June 28, 2018 § Leave a comment

On our first full day of summer break, I was stopped at a red light when I heard what could only be described as vigorous huffing and puffing from the backseat. My son headed off my own curiosity, turning to his sister in the seat next to him. “What in the WORLD, Emily?”

“I am blowing the red light,” she replied matter-of-factly, between huffs. “To get it to turn green.”

Her brother, never one to pass up an opportunity for correction, pounced on this. “That is NOT what it means to ‘blow a red light,’” JP said. “It means to drive through the light when it’s red.”

There were exactly two beats of silence, as my seven-year-old daughter presumably took in this information. Finally, she spoke, her voice quiet but firm.

“I choose to live in a world with magic, JP.”

Cue eye roll from big brother, and a big smile from me. You see, while my youngest has always been a free spirit (“Your daughter lives in a world of her own,” my own mother is fond of saying), she has never had much patience for magic wands or fairy godmothers, for Tinker Bell or Cinderella’s mice. “I do not like fairies,” she is fond of telling me, though I am equally fond of reminding her that, while she may always trade in fairy wings for dinosaur costumes, she has also loved listening to me read The Night Fairy, The Cats of Tanglewood Forest, and Snow and Rose. Her fondness for Disneyworld’s rides aside, Emily seems to object to a gendered, princess-y, commercialized depiction of magic. What she actually loves is the idea that—upon close, quiet, intimate examination—the natural world might be found to be tinged with the supernatural.

In his final line of his final children’s book, The Minpins, Roald Dahl wrote:

And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.

Our job as parents might be to teach our children to brush their own teeth and pack their own *$%! lunches, but it is also to nurture the believer in them. If we accomplish nothing but that our children choose to see magic in the world, I think we can rightfully throw ourselves a party.

It is likely no coincidence that this backseat exchange between my kids took place on the heels of finishing two chapter books with my daughter. Perhaps if her older brother had been on the receiving end of Granted (Ages 8-11), by John David Anderson, and Bob (Ages 7-10), co-written by Wendy Mass and Rebecca Stead, he would not have been surprised by Emily’s newly-pronounced world view. The two storylines couldn’t be more different; and yet, in overlaying a touch of the fantastical onto real, everyday life, the books beg their readers to look more closely at the world around them, to question whether there might be more going on than meets the eye.

Granted opens with a question—“The last time you blew out your birthday candles, what did you wish for?”—and then, across 322 spell-binding pages, proceeds to give us a “backstage pass” as to what actually happens when we humans offer up a silent wish into the universe, be it by birthday candle or fallen eyelash or shooting star. If our wish subsequently comes true, it could be coincidence. Or it could be the daring, painstaking, high-stakes work of a fairy—work so essential, the feydom’s very existence depends on it.

Ophelia Delphinium Fidgets is a fairy, with hair “as cobalt blue as the flower she was born from.” She lives, as all North American Fairies do, in the Haven, a mostly secreted place teeming with tree-top houses and bowing to its own complex set of laws, orders, and ceremonies. From their earliest age, fairies are assigned a guild to which they dedicate their lives. In Ophelia’s case—owing to her speed, her meticulousness, and her generally type A personality—she has the most coveted job: she’s a certified field agent, otherwise known as a Granter, which means she will be called upon to move surreptitiously among humans on a mission to grant a particular wish. Each day, a lottery in the Haven decides which of the millions of human wishes from the past 24 hours will be granted. Unfortunately, the Haven’s supply of magic has been rapidly dwindling over the years, owing to fewer and fewer human believers.

On the morning the story opens, there is only enough magic to grant a shocking twelve wishes. The good news is that Ophelia is assigned to one of the wishes, a chance to put her training into action at last. The wish is for a new bicycle, made by an Ohio girl named Kasarah Quinn, whose previous bike was stolen.

Protocol requires that, in order for a wish to come true, the Grantor has to retrieve the wished-upon object—in this case, a nickel tossed into a fountain—before she (or he, because male fairies are just as prevalent, including Ophelia’s pink-haired BFF) sprinkles on the precious 100% pure fairy dust and utters the magic words. Ophelia has twelve hours (“tocks,” in fey speak) to complete her mission and get back to the Haven. She is not, under any circumstance, to become distracted by anything she sees or hears (beyond the supersonic ringing of the wished-upon object), or emotionally invested in any of the creatures she encounters.

When you are a pint-sized creature with delicate fairy wings, journeying hundreds of miles without being seen or crushed can present unlimited challenges (planes! trucks! automatic sliding doors!)—even when armed with a thermal flight suit, camouflage spray, and various miniaturized weapons cooked up by a team of Builders, Makers, and Alchemists. Even more, attempting to chase down a coin, which seems to change hands more quickly than we can say Ophelia’s full name, means that Ophelia becomes an unwitting pawn in several humans’ lives (and one adorably hapless dog’s). As Ophelia quickly discovers, the wealth of printed information about the human world, which she has poured over for years in the Haven’s Archives, doesn’t scratch the surface. As it turns out, humans (and dogs) have a unique knack for getting others to care for them. And where there is caring, there are complications.

Granted proved the perfect antidote for my fairy-skeptical daughter. In nearly every chapter, author Anderson manages to build up to a breathless cliff-hanger specific to Ophelia’s mission, while simultaneously disclosing fascinating new details about the inner-workings of the feyworld at large. Much like J.K. Rowling’s richly textured Hogwarts, it seems there is nothing that Anderson hasn’t considered. Several times while I was reading the book, I thought, “But wait…,” only to have this suspected hole filled by a subsequent chapter. (The book addresses, for example, what happens if someone were to wish for world peace…or for something criminal.)

Ironically, it is precisely her perfectly-ordered world that Ophelia begins to rebel against. By decree of fairy law, wish fulfillment must be arbitrary; and yet, aren’t some wishes more important than others? What are the consequences for valuing one person’s life over another? What should the role of magic be? And what if we’ve been doing something the same way for so long that we’ve forgotten how to question it? Ironically, it’s Ophelia’s passionate rebellion that might just be the key to rekindling the believer in all of us.

In Bob, a chapter book my daughter and I finished in two days (being both short and deliciously addictive), there may not be any wish-granting fairies, but there is a mysterious green creature wearing a clumsily-fashioned chicken suit, whose destiny turns out to be directly linked to the wish of an entire community. When ten-year-old Livy finds this creature, who calls himself Bob, in her bedroom closet at her Australian grandmother’s farmhouse, she doesn’t remember him from the last time she visited that distant continent, five years earlier. In fact, she doesn’t remember many specifics about her last visit. Bob, however, has spent the past five years shut up in a closet thinking of little else but Livy, wondering when she was going return and doing his best to stay entertained with only a LEGO pirate ship and a dictionary. (Pause. I always thought it was just me who found the name Bob amusing to pronounce when I was a child—the way it kind of blurts out of the mouth—until I caught my daughter giggling and repeating it the first few times I read it. Or maybe it’s genetic? No offense to any Bobs out there reading this.)

Who and what is this adorably eccentric Bob creature? Where did he come from, and where if not the closet is he supposed to be? Bob and Livy are equally puzzled. Bob initially worries he might be a zombie, but Livy quickly puts an end to that with the help of the dictionary. When Livy determines that no one else seems able to see or hear Bob, she questions whether he might be an imaginary friend from her younger years; and yet, how can an imaginary friend eat actual potato chips? Through chapters that alternate between Livy’s and Bob’s perspective, we begin to piece together a picture, not only of the individual backgrounds and personalities, but why their friendship was once so important to both of them—and why it still is.

Livy is a quiet, perceptive child, caught in that sticky gap between little kid and big kid. She’s too old to play with dolls—or is she? She’s too old to be nervous about her mother leaving her for two weeks with her grandmother—or is she? She’s too old to remember how Bob first came to live in her closet—or is she? Even the format of the book echoes this duality, with short chapters and the occasional sepia-toned illustration (beautifully rendered by Nicholas Gannon), exactly halfway between an early chapter book and a middle-grade novel.

Certainly, Livy is old enough to sense the sadness, worry, and helplessness in the adults around her, all of whom are struggling to support farms in the midst of a severe years-long drought. She feels equally powerless to help—that is, until the neighbor’s son goes missing. When Livy and Bob journey deep into the woods to search for the boy, they not only find him,  they also discover that Bob is a clue to the drought plaguing the land. It’s a journey that no adult would understand or believe, but it’s a journey that reminds us readers that the natural world is rich with intrigue, with hidden currents, with a tinge of the supernatural. Whether Bob is real or a figment of Livy’s imagination may always be open to interpretation, but one thing is clear: occasionally, in life, there may not be a logical explanation for the amazing things we witness.

This summer, I invite you: choose a world with magic for your children. Grant some wishes. And maybe not just for them. I know a lot of adults who could use a little bit of magic right about now.

 

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Books published by Walden Pond Press (Harper Collins) and Feiwel and Friends (Macmillan), respectively. Review copies purchased by me! All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

Achieving Agency (with Help from Our Inner Crocodile)

March 8, 2018 § Leave a comment

When was the last time we steered, bribed, or (come on, we’ve all been there) threatened our children in a direction we thought was in their best interest? When was the last time we worried our child was missing out, or not trying new things, or not duly considering the consequences of his actions? When was the last time we intervened to save our children from themselves?

When was the last time we had all this “help” thrown back in our faces with a crocodile-sized chomp?

I am halfway through one of the most compelling parenting books I’ve ever read. In The Self-Driven Child, clinical neuropsychologist, William Stixrud, along with motivational coach, Ned Johnson, make a convincing case for what our children need most from us. Drawing from personal experience and brain science, they argue that the main driver behind children’s well-being isn’t grades, or where they go to school, or what things they have. Rather, it’s how much control children perceive as having over their lives. Do they feel they can direct their lives in a meaningful way? Do they have the freedom to make mistakes and learn from them?

“Agency may be the one most important factor in human happiness and well-being,” the book puts forth.

Perhaps more than we realize, we parents get in the way of our children developing their agency. We don’t mean to, of course. It’s just incredibly hard to sit back and watch our kids potentially sabotage friendships, tests, or the chance for future success. Maybe we want them to do what we did because it worked out so well, or maybe we’re hoping to save them from making the same mistakes we did. In any case, Stixrud and Johnson write:

So often, parents want to play Edward Scissorhands and start pruning their child like a tree, but the reality is that your tree has just begun to grow, and you don’t even know what kind of tree it is.

Sometimes, I would add, we “prune” our children without ever saying a word.

A few weeks ago, I attended my seven-year-old daughter’s “student-led conference” at her Montessori school, where she presented some of her recent work. To kick off the night, she shared a written “self-assessment,” in which she had noted her temperament, values, and interests. On one page was a list of “strong likes” and “strong dislikes.” Under the likes column, she had listed her brother, her father, and me (phew)—along with chocolate cake, polar bears, Helen Keller, and a few other things I couldn’t make out. Under dislikes, she had put “peppers.”

“Like spicy peppers?” I asked.

“No, like the peppers I eat for lunch.”

Ok, wait. My daughter packs her own lunch every morning. More often than not, she puts in red peppers. “You don’t like the red peppers you pack for lunch everyday?”

“I hate them,” she replied matter-of-factly.

“Then why do you pack them?” I had to ask.

“You put them on the counter, so I know you want me to. It seems important to you.”

Clearly, in their book, Stixrud and Johnson are talking about bigger things than bringing peppers for lunch. Or are they? What would have happened if my daughter had complained about packing peppers for lunch one morning? Would I have interpreted it as whining and glared at her in exasperation? Would I have passive-aggressively suggested she pack carrots instead, knowing how little she cares for those? Would I have barked, “They’re already out. Just pack them so you can hurry up and eat your breakfast.” Did she have any choice but to wait until we were on her turf to deliver this information?

I immediately thought about the heroine in Princess Cora and the Crocodile (Ages 5-9), the delightfully funny but astutely provocative early chapter book by award-winners Laura Amy Schlitz (three words: The Night Fairy) and Brian Floca. Published last year and enjoyed countless times in our house since then, Princess Cora and the Crocodile suddenly seems like the perfect, if hyperbolic, meditation on what it means to give our kids agency—before they have to go and unleash their inner crocodile.

You might say our protagonist, Princess Cora, has an agency problem. Meaning she has none. Her well-meaning royal parents have micromanaged every aspect of her life, beginning moments after her birth, as soon as they remember she will someday be queen. “They stopped thinking she was perfect and started worrying about what might be wrong with her. By the time she was seven years old, there wasn’t a single minute when Princess Cora wasn’t being trained.” Training, pruning: in this case, it’s the same thing.

As it turns out, Cora has grown increasingly resentful about her life in the royal castle. The nanny insists she takes, not one, but three baths a day. (“The nanny thought that being clean was the most important thing in the world.”) The King, determined that Cora grow up to be physically strong, stands over her with a stop watch, while she jumps rope in circles across the floor of the dungeon-now-gym. (“Princess Cora knew that skipping rope was good for her, but that didn’t make her like it any better.”) And the Queen only allows her to read books about running a successful kingdom. (“The books were so dull that Princess Cora yawned until her eyes were full of tears.”)

Why doesn’t Cora say something? Well, she tries. Sometimes, while reading books, she “asked silly questions, just to liven things up.” But then she’s criticized for being “inappropriate.” Sometimes, while asked to jump rope, she starts to protest. But then her father puts on a sad face and asks her, “Princess Cora, are you being a good girl?” To which it is assumed there should be only one answer.

Where questions of agency are concerned, it seems girls have it all the harder, feeling pressure to bend not only to parental demands, but also to society’s expectations. Girls, after all, are supposed to be “good.” To be polite and well-mannered. To never be loud or bossy or messy or angry. To never hurt feelings.

So, Cora does one of the few things allowed of heroines in fairy tales. She writes to her fairy godmother. In this case, the protocol for contacting one’s fairy godmother—my daughter loves this part—is to write a letter, tear it up, and leave it on the window ledge, where each of the scraps turns into a white butterfly and flies away.

Cora writes specifically of her wish for a dog (“a dog wouldn’t tell her what to do”), but she finds something much larger at the foot of her bed the next morning. A crocodile. And not just any crocodile. A crocodile who triumphantly exclaims, “I’ve come to rescue you from your awful parents and your mean nanny.” A crocodile who seems every bit the opposite of the neat, quiet, polite princess. (Or is he?) Did I mention this crocodile bites? That he leaves a wake of destruction in his path? That he says things which are very, very rude? That he demands cream puffs all day and night?

The princess and the crocodile hatch a plan: Cora will run away and experience life outside the castle walls, while the crocodile will stand in for her, donning a dress and a mop for hair. (Cora assures him her parents aren’t very observant.)

What follows is a most entertaining juxtaposition: the sweet revelations of Cora’s tromp through nature, interspersed with the uproarious physical comedy of the crocodile wreaking havoc back home. While we might guess where this is going, the delight comes from the delicious details in Schlitz’s narrative and the whimsy of Floca’s drawings.

Cora climbs trees, stuffs herself full of freshly-picked strawberries, and walks barefoot through cow patties (at first thought, “Ew ew ew;” at second thought, “I’m having an adventure!”). Her petticoats rip and her cheeks pink up.

Back at the castle, the crocodile starts by turning the bathroom into a water slide and tossing Nanny into the bath. Later, bored of his reading lesson (the Queen initially assumes she is talking to Cora), he balances the ink pot on his nose until black splotches cover the table; swings from the chandelier; taunts the Queen with “bad rhymes;” and nips at her ankles. Finally, he chases the King around in circles and ties him up with the skipping rope.

“I don’t want to be a good little girl,” the crocodile declares. “I want to be a bad crocodile. And what’s more, I am one!” And that, of course, is when we realize that the crocodile is none other than a metaphor for the anger and rebellion—the maleness, if you will—which good girl Cora has tried so many years to repress.

As we expect, Cora eventually realizes that she misses her parents, and she decides to return to the castle. Only this time, it’s on her terms. As it turns out, the King and Queen and Nanny have also had a change of heart. (After getting locked in the library, the Queen realizes just how boring her books are and throws them out the window.) The grown-ups begin to do something they have never done before: they begin to listen to Cora. This time, she talks clearly, convincingly, and assertively. (“This time Cora didn’t hang her head or turn red or burst into tears.”) Cora speaks of her interest in reading about “sharks and tigers and fairies”; in climbing trees and learning how to juggle; in taking baths but only after getting very, very dirty. To their surprise, her parents discover that Cora’s overall goals for herself aren’t dramatically different from the ones they have for her; it’s only that she has different ideas about how to achieve them.

The Self-Driven Child raises the unsettling question, “If we’re unable to accept our kids as they are, how can we expect them to accept themselves?” The authors challenge us to listen, really listen to our children. They suggest, what if instead of steering our children down a path we deem best, we begin seeing our job as one of “consultant”—helping our children see the pros and cons of a decision but then, ultimately, leaving that decision up to them? After all, if we accept our children as they are, perhaps they won’t feel the need to unleash their inner crocodile just to get our attention. Perhaps they can embrace all aspects of their personality, not just the ones society tells them are most “appropriate.”

After a brief hiatus, Emily has started packing peppers again in her lunch. Maybe her hatred is softening, or maybe it’s just on her terms now.

(And no, I’m not going to tell you what becomes of the crocodile.)

 

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Review copy provided by Candlewick. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

Into the Woods

January 12, 2018 § 2 Comments

After the holiday dishes were done, after the last of our guests flew home, our family did what we do best on winter breaks: we hunkered down and read.

In a somewhat bittersweet turn of events, JP was less interested in listening to me read than he was in reading his own book (Five, Six, Seven, Nate!, the sequel to Tim Federle’s fabulous Better Nate Than Ever, which I can at least take credit for introducing to him last fall, on our trip to New York City to catch his first Broadway musical). Emily, however, was game to join me each day on the couch and insisted we read Emily Winfield Martin’s newly-published and ohhhh-so-lovely Snow and Rose (Ages 8-12, slightly younger if reading aloud).

When the winter doldrums threaten to take over, we fantasize about escape. But who needs a tropical beach vacation when you have the mysterious, enchanted, dangerous woods of our imagination? (Um, still me. But that’s a different post.)

It doesn’t happen often that my kids get to a book before I do. But when I opened the box from Random House to reveal Snow and Rose’s stunning black cover, with its raised gold lettering and cloaked girls—one in pale blue and one in red—Emily exclaimed, “Oh, that’s the book we just finished in school!” Say what? (After my shock wore off, I delighted that her teachers have their pulse on contemporary children’s literature.) At once, Emily decided this would be our winter break read. “Are you sure you don’t want to hear something new?” I asked.

“Actually, Mommy, I think this is one of those books that feels even more magical the second time you read it. Plus, I’ll be able to spot all the clues, because I know what’s going to happen.” (She didn’t need to add, And you don’t.)

Across nineteen exquisite chapters and gorgeous full-color illustrations normally reserved for the likes of picture books, Snow and Rose concerns itself with re-telling The Brothers Grimm’s fairy tale, “Snow White and Rose Red”: the story of two impoverished, fatherless girls, who live with their mother in a cottage at the edge of an enchanted woods—and whose chance encounters with a giant bear and an unsettling dwarf set their destinies into motion.

In the academic study of children’s literature, much has been made about why fairy tales—dark, twisted, fantastical stories of long ago—get retold and reread with such frequency (apart from the electrifying shivers they send down our spines). One of the best explanations comes from Bruno Bettelheim’s seminal 1976 book, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, which proffers, “The child intuitively comprehends that although these stories are unreal, they are not untrue…”

That is to say, while the settings and dramatic action of fairy tales might be (sometimes ridiculously) far-fetched, the world view they offer our children is not. Rather, these stories put forth a reassuringly familiar account of what it feels like to be young, helpless, even afflicted in a world presided over by adult authority figures, whose motivations are often neither evident nor well-meaning. Remember Hansel and Gretel’s father, manipulated by his new wife to leave his children in the woods to die? Remember the witch, disguised by the sugary treats of her gingerbread house?

And yet, these fairy tales also offer hope: what their young protagonists lack in power, they more than make up for in wit, creativity, kindness, and loyalty. In fact, often through a combination of these qualities, these characters figure out how to step outside the adult shadows, how to tease out light from dark, and how to reverse their own fortunes into a kind of Happy Ending. Bettelheim explains:

The unrealistic nature of these tales…is an important device, because it makes obvious that the fairy tales’ concern is not useful information about the external world, but the inner process taking place in an individual.

In Snow and Rose, Martin puts the “inner processes” of her heroines on full display, exploring and building on an emotional awareness and growth in the two sisters only hinted at in the original fairy tale. Snow, named for her white hair, is spirited, wild, and impulsive. Rose, with “hair like threads of black silk and cheeks like two red petals,” is rational, determined, and fiercely loyal. And yet, Martin resists setting these personalities in stone. The girls’ temperaments evolve, even bend, at different opportunities, particularly when the other needs her most.

If there is one thing we can count on in fairy tales, it’s that things are rarely as they seem. Martin has expanded on this premise with a story that also resists labels and boxes, which seems to exist in the very grey shadows of the trees through which the girls traverse, seeking answers to questions life has so unwittingly hurled at them.

When we first meet the sisters, they are mourning the life they once knew. Most significantly, they are facing the loss of their beloved father, who wandered into the woods one day and never returned. Because we’re in the language of fairy tales, he did not “die;” he “was taken.” In fact, people have been mysteriously disappearing in these woods for years.

The wondering burned inside [Snow and Rose] but took different shapes because of what they believed: Rose wanted to know why their father had been taken, and Snow wanted to know how to get him back. Their wondering touched the edges of things they could never know, about this place that had changed their fortunes once and would change them again.

If our children ever needed inspiration to confront their fears head on, they need look no further. In order to find answers to their “burning” questions, Snow and Rose venture boldly into the very woods whose mysteries have been their family’s greatest downfall.

Fortunately (by now you might need some reassurance that all is not dark, dreary, and bone-chilling in these 205 pages), Martin populates these enchanted woods with just as many wonderful, wondrous things—many of them unique to her version of the story—as she does the bandits, the howling wolves, the knife-teethed fish, and the trees with watching eyes. Of all the beauty to be found, not the least of which are the seasonal transformations: the woods a silent “palace of ice” after a snowstorm, a “carpet of violets” in the spring.

There’s the “mushroom boy,” Ivo, who lives with his family in an underground house, accessible only by a long chute beneath the roots of a tree, and who becomes a treasured companion to the sisters.

There is the mysterious Library: a small house in a clearing flanked by white flowers, on whose shelves rest, not books, but thousands of boxed and jarred objects, all of them found in the woods and all of them with stories waiting to impart to their borrower, though not in any predictable way.

And there is the larger-than-life bear, a creature feared and suspected by many as the culprit behind the humans’ disappearances—but whom the sisters believe innocent. The girls free the beast’s leg from a huntsman trap, shelter him from winter’s fury in front of their fireplace, and later reap the benefits of their kindness in spades.

While the girls may be right about the bear, they are wrong about the Little Man: the white-bearded, red-pointy-hat-clad fellow, who speaks in riddles and proves immune to the sisters’ kindness. In Little Man lies the story’s duplicitous villain, a cruel and calculating creature, but even here Martin seems to tug at the universality of fairy tales. When asked to identify himself, the Little Man mischievously taunts the girls:

“Sometimes I’m the Dwarf and sometimes I’m the Tomten…Or sometimes the Brownie or Boggart or Gnome…And to some very rude people, I’ve been the Goblin…But these are just names… Many names have I, child. But none have guessed what I am.”

Exactly “what” the Little Man personifies can be debated at length. Evil? Greed? Loneliness? Misunderstanding? Older children might even pick up on how the sisters actually share red and white attributes with the Little Man. Perhaps Martin wishes to suggest that, in the making of our own fate and fortune, we must begin by confronting our own demons.

If I was impressed with how Martin remodels the interior of her fairy tale, I was slayed by her ending, a deeply gratifying departure from the original. In the Brothers Grimm’s telling, the fairy tale ends when the bear turns into a prince and marries one of the sisters. In Martin’s version, there is a different transformation altogether, one much more suited to the hearts’ desire of our heroines. No spoilers here but, ultimately, the story ends with a celebration of familial bonds—particularly those of sisterhood—and the reassuring reminder that our own courage and wit and will to survive in the wild woods are made stronger by the love we have at our backs.

Always, when we return from the woods, we are changed in the best of ways.

Did you enjoy this post? Make sure you don’t miss any others! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll receive a new post in your inbox each week (more during the holidays).

Review copy provided by Random House. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

Morality, Martyrdom, & Murderous Marauders (Yup, for Kids)

January 26, 2017 § 1 Comment

"The Inquisitor's Tale" by Adam GidwitzIf the greatest teaching tools delight the heart as they instruct the mind, then Adam Gidwitz has just given us 337 of the most bizarre, funny, and awesomely epic pages for talking to our children about Western Civilization’s history with prejudice and persecution.

Let me back up.

Had you told me I would relish reading to my son a novel set in the Middle Ages—not to mention one steeped in some of the oldest, most complicated debates in religion—I would have said you didn’t know me in college, when I nearly destroyed my GPA in a class on The Canterbury Tales. In all of English literature, there is little I have found less enticing than the Middle Ages. Knights roaming the countryside, exploited surfs, and drunks passed out in the doorways of inns? Not my thing.

Until now.

Enter Adam Gidwitz, formerly known for his deliciously dark (and darkly humorous) retelling of traditional fairy tales in his bestselling middle-grade trilogy A Tale Dark and Grimm (Ages 8-12). Ever since I first read his essay “In Defense of Real Fairy Tales,” I have known Gidwitz to be someone dedicated to giving kids, not only what their hearts desire, but what their psyches need.

Now, Gidwitz has taken his unique talent for combining blood and gore with the deeply personal and morally inquisitive and turned it on the Middle Ages in The Inquisitor’s Tale (Or, the Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog) (Ages 11-16).

"The Inquisitor's Tale" by Adam Gidwitz & Hatem Aly

Let me just say that THIS IS THE MOST DARING WORK OF CHILDREN’S FICTION I HAVE EVER ENCOUNTERED. Never mind that Gidwitz fashions his story in the style of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, where oral narratives are delivered over pints of ale by an innkeeper, a chronicler, a librarian, a troubadour, a jongleur, a nun and, ultimately, the Inquisitor himself—each picking up where the other leaves off. Never mind that the book is gorgeously illustrated in the style of an illuminated manuscript by the Egyptian-born Hatem Aly. Those things are just icing on the cake. It’s what Gidwitz does inside the story that’s utterly mind-blowing.

"The Inquisitor's Tale" by Adam Gidwitz & Hatem Aly

The Inquisitor’s Tale reveals so many twists and turns, takes so many thematic and narrative risks, that it would feel like whiplash if it wasn’t so riveting. Did a young monk just yank off his donkey’s leg, use it to club to death a band of murderous bandits, and then magically reattach it? Did three children just watch their guardian throw himself in protest onto a pyre of Jewish books being burned on the whim of a Christian king? Did a boy just cure a lactose-intolerant dragon of his deadly farts by feeding him rotted sheep flesh so he would puke up a “long, goopy train of yellow liquid”?

"The Inquisitor's Tale" by Adam Gidwitz & Hatem Aly

Are three children and a troubadour actually sitting around in a children’s book debating the question, “Why would God make bad things happen?” And actually coming up with answers both profound and humorous?

Cut to my JP, gaping at me over the pages with unblinking eyes.

Gidwitz’s book may be a suspenseful, swashbuckling tale of epic proportions, but it is also an intimate window into the souls of the three French children who star in it. Given the clashes in class and religion which permeate every aspect of thirteenth-century society, these children should by all accounts have no reason even to meet, much less form an alliance."The Inquisitor's Tale" by Adam Gidwitz & Hatem Aly

Jeanne is a lowly peasant girl, desperate to hide her prophetic fits lest she be accused of sorcery and burned at the stake. She is trailed by her loyal white greyhound, Gwenforte, who has died and come back to life (yup). Jacob is a Jewish boy, possessed with magical healing powers from the night he narrowly escapes his village after it is set on fire by Christian peasant boys. William is an orphaned and oddly large oblate (monk-in-training), recently expelled from the monastery where he grew up ridiculed for his supernatural strength and his part-African-Muslim heritage.

Where their class and religion should divide them, the children instead come together over something they have in common: they are all outcasts. Their births would put them in one place, but their abilities prevent them from staying there. A great debate runs through the story: Are the children saints? Should they martyr themselves? And what do these two things even mean?

"The Inquisitor's Tale" by Adam Gidwitz & Hatem Aly

Ironically, more than their powers, it is the children’s vulnerability which shapes them. As they share their pasts and discuss their belief systems with one another, as they watch strangers react differently to each of them, they begin to question the entrenched divisions of their society. They begin to analyze and critique their own faiths, to ask some of the most difficult and universal of questions about the meaning of life and our role in it. What does doing the right thing look like? And is it worth the expense?

Cut to JP, gaping at me over the pages with unblinking eyes.

By luck or by fate, the three children come up against the central conflict of the story: the planned burning at the order of King Louis IX of all the Talmuds in France, the sacred Hebrew text at the heart of Judaism. During the high Middle Ages, these reproductions were vehemently guarded by Jewish leaders—book printing a painstaking labor of love whereby each page is hand copied—and there were many documented attempts by Christian rulers to obtain and destroy them for the threat to Christianity they believed they possessed. (Never mind that the children discover the central message of the Talmud—“What you would hate to have done to you—do not do to other people”—ironically aligns with the Golden Rule of Christianity—“Do unto others as you would have them do to you.” Go think on that, kids and grown people.)

"The Inquisitor's Tale" by Adam Gidwitz & Hatem Aly

With the help of “a mountain of flesh, with red hair and bristling whiskers and reddish eyes” named Michelangelo di Bologna, the children stage a plot to save the Talmuds and preserve the Jewish teachings. In doing so, they end up in a climactic showdown with royalty and knights on a battleground of quicksand, against the backdrop of the reverent Mont-Saint-Michel on the outskirts of Paris.

Cut to JP, gaping at me over the pages with unblinking eyes.

"The Inquisitor's Tale" by Adam Gidwitz & Hatem Aly

Had I been exposed as a child to anything approximating Gidwitz’s The Inquisitor’s Tale, would I have grown up with a different appreciation for the Middle Ages? HECK YES! I might have even gone on to study religion and philosophy with fervid passion.

As Gidwitz explains in his equally fascinating fourteen-page Author’s Note, his story is meticulously researched, the product of a year spent in Europe with his wife, herself a professor of the Middle Ages. Many of the figures and events in the book are real (King Louis IX; Talmuds burning in Paris; even Gwenforte is based on a real Holy Greyhound, to my son’s delight), and many others are based on legends of the Middle Ages. All of these parallels are so enticingly explained that I actually exclaimed, “God’s wounds! If only I could go back to school and study this!” (We’re well-versed in medieval swearing now—I highly recommend it.) To which JP replied: “No, Mommy, we need you here. But, don’t worry, I’ll learn it and tell you everything.” Looks like I’ll have to make do with the extensive annotated bibliography at the book’s end.

"The Inquisitor's Tale" by Adam Gidwitz & Hatem Aly

Again and again, Gidwitz shows us that things are not what they seem, that people cannot be dismissed by the circumstances of their birth, and that actions speak louder than words. (Also: “A hug from a child! Perhaps God’s greatest invention!”) At the book’s conclusion, the children broach the subject of martyrdom with their mentor, Michelangelo, worried that he foresees sacrificial death in their future. Instead, Michelangelo asks William for the Latin definition of “martyr.” The boy replies, “witness,” and Michelangelo responds:

Correct. And have you not already witnessed on behalf of goodness and beauty and justice and God? To Louis and Blanche and dozens of others? Whether you go your separate ways or stay together, you will continue to witness—against ignorance, against cruelty, and on behalf of all that is beautiful about this strange and crooked world. Yes, children, you will be martyrs. Just as you have always been.

Children may save us all in the end.

In fact, it has always been children—their innocence, their purity, their innate goodness—who offer the most hope, who possess the greatest power to reach across the divides, to stop the destructive cycle of prejudice and persecution, and to open their hearts to love and acceptance.

I only hope we adults will start watching them a little more closely.

GREAT NEWS: Blessedly, The Inquisitor’s Tale will be with us for the long haul, as earlier this week it was awarded the prestigious Newberry Honor by the American Library Association! The other award recipients are similarly mature and daring, with the Newberry Medal going to Kelly Barnhill’s spellbinding dark fantasy, The Girl Who Drank the Moon, and another Honor going to Lauren Wolk’s haunting and deeply resonant Wolf Hollow (my favorite book of 2016—read my post from last summer here). Do our children have any idea how lucky they are to be growing up at a time when children’s authors are taking off the handcuffs, expanding the literary landscape, and breaking rules all over the place? (Probably not, but that’s a conversation for another time.)

Did you enjoy this post? Make sure you don’t miss any others! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll receive a new post in your inbox each week.

Book published by Dutton Children’s Books. Review copy provided by Penguin. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

A Fresh Take on a Holiday Tradition

November 24, 2016 § 1 Comment

After last week’s "The Nutcracker" by Niroot Puttapipatsomber posts, I am shifting tones to herald one of the most spellbinding picture books of the year, inspired by one of our family’s favorite holiday traditions.

I confess I never liked The Nutcracker much as a kid. I thought the Mouse King was creepy, I thought the dancing was long, and I thought the Sugar Plum Fairy’s castle consistently under-delivered on such a lofty name. Either I was a cranky kid, or I wasn’t seeing the right performances (or reading the right books ahead of time).

Then I became a parent and two things happened. First, beloved British illustrator Alison Jay came out with arguably the sweetest, cheeriest, and loveliest picture book adaptation of The Nutcracker—one that the kids and I have looked forward to unpacking with our Christmas decorations and savoring afresh every year.

Secondly, my husband and I started taking our kids to the Washington Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker at the Warner Theater in DC, a deliciously accessible performance for young children, where twinkling lights and perfect tutus send shivers of excitement down our dressed-up spines (and whose creative liberties involving a Mouse King cast in a Revolutionary War battle scene ensures my son is every bit as enchanted as his sister).

Now that we are Nutcracker enthusiasts—and now that Tchaikovsky’s music officially marks for us the start of the holiday season—I decided that this year we were ready to explore the darker, more mysterious intonations of the ballet.

And, just like that, the Thailand-born British illustrator Niroot Puttapipat launched the most breathtaking children’s edition of The Nutcracker that I have ever seen. Inspired by the sets from Marius Petipa’s original production in Saint Petersburg on December 18, 1892, the sophisticated adaptation not only hearkens back to the origins of the story, but it nudges at our dreamy subconscious in the same way that, say, Grimm fairy tales do. Puttapipat’s book isn’t scary, but it has an element of mystery and magic that feels just the tiniest bit unsettling—and leaves us wanting more.

If Alison Jay’s book is sugary and sweet and makes us want to twirl across the living room, Puttapipat’s keeps us squarely transfixed on the page. My kids and I cannot stop looking at this book. Some of you may already know Puttapipat’s unique artistic style from his previous Jingle Bells and The Night Before Christmas (clearly, I’m late to jump on this bandwagon).

In The Nutcracker, delicate black silhouetted figures—almost haunting in their absence of detail and expression—are set against sumptuous swaths of color. Expanses of black set pieces are juxtaposed with meticulous fine-point detailing, like the embroidery on the Nutcracker Prince’s coat or the ornaments on the Christmas tree.

"The Nutcracker" by Niroot Puttapipat

Think of these like the landscapes of our dreams, where certain things take shape but others are shrouded in darkness.

It’s not just the unexpectedness of these visuals that entices; it’s also the emotion that radiates from every page. There’s no expression on young Clara’s face, yet we feel her heartbreak as she crouches beside her broken nutcracker.

"The Nutcracker" by Niroot Puttapipat

We feel Clara’s worry as she watches the battle between the come-to-life nutcracker and the evil Mouse King (before she chucks her slipper at him to end things once and for all).

"The Nutcracker" by Niroot Puttapipat

The text, which runs along sidebars on each spread, is adapted by Kate Davies and closely based on the original texts by E.T.A. Hoffman and Alexandre Dumas. Yet, rather than feeling stiff or outdated, it too soars with drama and lyricism, aiding and embedding Clara’s magical journey alongside the Nutcracker Prince to the Land of Sweets.

They traveled by swan over gold-flecked oceans and silver-edged cities. Clara held her breath, her eyes wide. As she gazed at the twinkling lights far below, snowflakes pirouetted past. The prince caught one and gave it to Clara. “Try it,” he said.

Clara let the snowflake dissolve on her tongue. “Mmm. Rosebuds and raspberries!” she said.

“Mine is peppermint and honey,” said her prince. “Every snowflake tastes unique.”

"The Nutcracker" by Niroot Puttapipat

The Land of Sweets does not disappoint. While the text describes lemonade flowing from fountains and lollipops growing in flower beds, Puttapipat’s magical picture (it might be my favorite) delivers us a castle whose dark spires stand bold against a shimmering night sky; a moss-draped walking bridge that’s fit for starry romance; and a Sugar Plum Fairy whose wings look like they have been cast in sugary ice. It is enough to make Believers out of the most hardened of us.

"The Nutcracker" by Niroot Puttapipat

Oh, but there’s more. As Clara and the Prince prepare to enter the castle, the page turns to reveal a pop-up spread of cut-paper art that might be one of the most magnificent things I’ve ever seen in a children’s book.  This is a castle that delivers: a castle at once light and dark, at once festive and mysterious. The silhouetted figures that flank the scene are nods to the different styles of international dance that follow in the actual ballet.

"The Nutcracker" by Niroot Puttapipat

What happens inside the castle is largely left to the imagination (until we go to the ballet, that is). The book—somewhat abruptly—concludes on the next page, with Clara waking up back home with the wooden nutcracker in her arms. “What a wonderful dream, she thought. But she could still taste lime and mint…”

And then something happens that is not in the Alison Jay version and which elicited an audible shudder from my daughter (“Ooooh, Mommy, that’s so mysterious!”). I’ll let your children discover that surprise on their own.

Traditions have the best chance of standing the test of time if fresh life can occasionally be breathed into them. Niroot Puttapipat reminds us that our family has only scratched the surface of enjoying this 125-year-old ballet.

Did you enjoy this post? Make sure you don’t miss any others! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll receive a new post in your inbox each week.

Review copy provided by Candlewick Press. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

In the Absence of Words: Why Share Wordless Picture Books With Your Kids

September 22, 2016 § 2 Comments

The Journey Trilogy by Aaron BeckerA few days before summer break ended, a giant box arrived from Candlewick publishing, containing a number of advance copies of fall releases. Candlewick is one of my favorite publishers—also one of the most generous supporters of my blog—and the buzz in our house when one of their boxes arrives is akin to Christmas morning. The kids and I tore open the box and quickly identified new installments in some of our favorite series (the new Princess in Black comes out in November, as well as the third in the “hat” stories by the dry-witted Jon Klassen; both are fabulous).

But there was one book that—hands down!—got the loudest squeals and the highest jumps as soon as my kids laid eyes on it. Aaron Becker’s Return (Ages 5-10) is the much-anticipated finale of a wordless trilogy about a girl, her red crayon, and the otherworldly adventures to which her art and her imagination transport her (I wrote about the first title, Journey, back in 2013, before it went on to win a Caldecott Honor).

Wordless books can be a hard sell. They can be an especially hard sell for parents, because what exhausted parent wants the pressure of making up a narrative when the relief of bedtime is so near? How can I read a book with no words? Can’t my kid just look at that on his own?

Hear me out.

For starters, education researchers have long touted the value of wordless picture books as a tool for pre-literacy. When children are learning to read—when they’re caught in that delicate balance of needing to cherish small successes but not fully versed in phonograms and sight words—they can look to pictures for valuable clues about what the text might be saying. (He’s picking up a fork, so that word must be “fork”; there’s a grimace on his face as he’s eating, so that must mean the words are going to be about him not liking it).

When children are forced to extract a narrative from pictures alone, they become well versed at using visual clues to decode text.

I would argue that the value of wordless picture books extends well past the early-reading stage. Wordless books can help make close readers of our children, a vital skill for academic success at every grade level.

Especially in the hands of a visual wizard like Becker, the reader is rewarded for every extra second he or she takes to study the pictures. On nearly every spread in Journey, Quest, and Return, there is mystery, intrigue, wonder, and confusion. Repeated readings only deepen our experience, reveal things that our eyes—in our haste—missed the first time.

Let’s talk about that haste for a minute. (We are listening to Charlotte’s Web in the car these days, so I feel inspired to quote the wise Charlotte: “…with men it’s rush, rush, rush, every minute. I’m glad I’m a sedentary spider.”)

When my nine year old tears through beloved series like The Hardy Boys, Hazardous Tales, and I Survived, I can’t help but wonder: how carefully does he read? Does he skip over passages when he doesn’t understand? Does he take time to notice the language, the details of a setting, or the way a character is described? Does he have an opinion about the book, other than “It was epic!”?

I try very hard not to scrutinize or judge (outwardly) my children’s reading habits. If my kids are reading, I want them to read—without my asking loaded questions about whether they’ve finished a book or what they are learning from the story or whether they will read aloud parts to me. I want them to read for the love of the thing. I want them to discover their own motivations for reading outside parental or adult pressure.

Instead, I try to model good books and good reading practices. I choose books to read aloud that showcase beautiful language, complex characters, and plots rich in shades of grey and murky emotions. I often share aloud my own feelings about the things we’re reading. I tell them which questions are giving me pause. Much of the time, they are quick to join me in conversation.

As it turns out, I don’t have to be reading books with words to accomplish that.

Weeks back, when that box showed up at our doorstep and my kids jumped up with Return in their hands, then ran through various rooms to locate the first two titles in the trilogy so that we could read all three books straight through, I was reminded that sharing wordless picture books with our children can be another immensely valuable way to teach them to slow down and cherish the intricacies of a story.

It’s a credit to Aaron Becker just how hard my children and I are willing to work to interpret his lantern-hung forests, his purple skies, and the rock-clad walls of his prophetic caves. (Interesting side note: in the author’s bio printed on the jacket cover of the newest book, we learn that the exotic kingdom depicted in the trilogy, with its lavish domes and flowing canals and frenetic kings and emperors, is inspired by Becker’s visit as a child to Mont-Saint-Michel in Normandy, France—the same walled island we all grew to love in the 2015 Pulitzer Prize winner, All the Light We Cannot See).

"Journey" by Aaron Becker

Here’s the gist of what my kids and I have surmised from the time we’ve spent with these books.

In Journey, a girl escapes boredom by drawing a doorway into a magical land and inadvertently finding herself in the center of an enslavement plot. Her creativity, along with the artistic aid of a like-minded boy, guides her safely home again, while at the same time giving her the companionship she has been seeking.

"Journey" by Aaron Becker

In Quest, Becker’s second book, the girl with the red crayon and her new friend with the purple crayon are drawn back into the mysterious world, where greater intrigue and suspense greet them. We learn that their crayons are part of a larger set of six that, in the right hands, can return color and freedom and prosperity to this grey and conflict-laden kingdom.

"Quest" by Aaron Becker

Now at last, in Return, we are given the final pieces of the puzzle. It was my son who came up with the idea that the bad guys aren’t simply after the crayons; they’re after art. Or, rather, they’re out to destroy the transformative power of making art. It was also my son who pointed out details that I initially missed: how the green emanating from the emperor’s boat is a sickly, unnatural green, a slime green, a green that somehow instinctively identifies him as evil.

"Return" by Aaron Becker

Our reading of these books is full of “Wait, look at that!” and “Oh, now I get it,” and “But what it THAT?” Three heads huddled over the same book. Three sets of fingers pointing. Three voices contributing to one shared understanding.

Perhaps there’s a third, even more powerful benefit that comes from sharing wordless picture books with our children—and that’s the opportunity to collaborate with them.

I’ve been thinking about this issue a lot, as we make the difficult transition into the rigidity of fall routines: of rushing to school, of rushing home from school, of trying to get dinner on the table and everyone to bed at an early hour so that we can make some semblance of an attempt at doing it all over again the next day.

Too often, I parent from a place of authority rather than a place of collaboration. But how can I insist that my children develop flexibility unless I am willing to demonstrate It myself? Wordless picture book, like the Journey trilogy (and I’ve listed other favorites at the end of this post), present a rare gift for us parents to embrace the benefits of honoring our children as partners, rather than progeny.

Appropriately, this happens to be precisely how the trilogy concludes. If the first book casts a less-than-favorable light on the girl’s parents—her mother chatting on the phone while cooking, her father too busy on his computer to respond to the girl’s entreaties to play—the third book spins a more optimistic narrative.

Return begins when the father looks up from his work and, seeing his daughter’s kite dropped at his feet, goes in search of her.

"Return" by Aaron Becker

When he finds her red door, he ducks and enters—until he, too, is a character in the vivid magical world that has bewitched his daughter on so many occasions. As it turns out, and as the girl only recognizes once she has forgiven his indifference and welcomed him into her imagination, the father has a critical role to play in the unfolding drama. The two share an adventure which, not only brings them closer together, but reveals a secret about the father’s own history with art and imagination. A door once closed has opened again for him.

"Return" by Aaron Becker

We do not need words on a page to comprehend the sheer joy on the girl’s face at the realization that she has an accomplice in her beloved parent. (Hint: see if your child picks up on the subtle change in the endpapers from the beginning of Return to the end; my daughter had to show me, and I almost broke down sobbing, so close to home did it hit.)

In a few months—and at a time when we aren’t rushing—I plan to get out these books again and encourage my kids to look at them alongside me with fresh eyes. I imagine they won’t need convincing. I think we’ve only scratched the surface of what we can discover and interpret and learn from these sensational pages.

Updated Nov 2017: The Journey trilogy BOX SET is now available: gorgeously packaged and including a never-before-released print!

Other Favorite Wordless Picture Books:
Hank Finds an Egg, by Rebecca Dudley (Ages 3-6)
Flashlight, by Lizi Boyd (Ages 3-6)
The Farmer and the Clown, by Marla Frazee (Ages 4-8; I challenge you to get through this story of connection without tearing up.)
Sidewalk Flowers, by JonArno Lawson & Sydney Smith (Ages 4-8)
Pool, by Jihyeon Lee (Ages 4-8, reviewed by me here)
The Girl and the Bicycle and The Boy and the Airplane, by Mark Prett (Ages 4-8)
Fox’s Garden, by Princesse Camcam (Ages 4-8)

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Review copy provided by Candlewick. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

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